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First, read this…

Let’s call it Exhibit A in the case for the prosecution. I wrote it in January 2011, and, I think we can all agree, it’s a fine example of the ‘mediocre sketch with vaguely interesting premise’ genre.

Now watch this:

You see? You see? And that, my friends, was put up on the Internet back in 2009.

Conclusive evidence, if any were needed, that the writing staff of That Mitchell And Webb Look are compulsive thieves who have developed time travel. The only feasibly explanation for this is that they roam the timestreams like multidimensional magpies, purloining comedic gems wherever they go.

Or, alternatively, it was a pretty obvious idea. And one that shows exactly why a lot of new writers spend far too long worrying about people stealing their ideas.

When two people have the same idea, it doesn’t necessarily mean that someone stole it. And, in this case, it’s not just the idea, the execution is fairly similar: the setup is the same, both have a gag about crystals, and the patient ends up dead. Mine doesn’t have the second-scene coda which gives some nice context, but they’re similar enough that I felt an irrational pang of anger when I saw the Mitchell & Webb clip.

But I knew that was all it was, an irrational response. It took about four seconds for me to realise and fully accept that writers sometimes have the same ideas, especially comedy writers addressing the same topic.

I often think when I see the efforts people go to to send themselves scripts by registered post, register things with the Library of Congress, and only conditionally let producers see some of what they have written after they’ve signed an NDA, that this energy could have been better used, well, writing.

No one wants to steal your scripts.

No one reputable wants to steal your scripts. For the amount of hassle and legal trouble that will be caused if they do, it’s cheaper just to buy your script. That way, you’ll also be likely to offer them your next script. If someone thinks your writing is good, they will want to make it, and they will want to make other things you write (or at least be offered them, which is unlikely if you are embroiled in a legal dispute over ownership of a previous script).

Many people won’t read unsolicited scripts now because they worry about being accused of plagiarism in the future. Rather than protecting themselves, new writers are reducing the number of people who are willing to read what they’ve written.

Are there unscrupulous people focused on short-term gain in the movie and TV businesses? Almost certainly. Moreso in films, where anyone with a mobile phone and a table at a decent restaurant can call themselves a producer. But these people are very few and far between, and they are usually too busy ‘setting up deals’ to actually make a film in which they rip off someone’s idea. There are easier ways of getting someone to work for nothing than theft. Usually you can just ask them: “Will you work for nothing, giving up all rights to your work?”

However, most people are hard-working, creative, and desperate to turn good scripts into good programmes or movies. Without exception, the people I have worked with have had one goal: making the best things they can make with the resources they have.

And, besides…

Your ideas are not all that important.

Ideas are ten a penny. Everyone has an idea for a film. Everyone can have ideas. You don’t need a writer to come up with ideas.

You need a writer to write a film.

The idea has very little relevance to how good a film is going to be. Just look at all the straight-to-DVD ripoffs that come out every time there is a huge hit at the cinema. The ones with a business model that depends on the confusion of the buying public. “Avatard? Didn’t that get pretty good reviews?”

Look at Deep Impact and Armageddon; Volcano and Dante’s Peak; Antz and A Bug’s Life. (What? I watched a lot of films in the 90s. What?) The fact that the premise is similar doesn’t make these films equally successful, either commercially or as films.

It’s all in the execution.

And sometimes even that comes out quite similarly. See above.

Time spent worrying about who is stealing your work is time you’re not spending working. If, contrary to all logic, there is someone out there desperate to steal the work of new writers and to pass it off as their own, paying money to ‘register’ your script won’t stop them doing it (In the UK, you hold the copyright on something you have written as soon as it is written. You do not need to register it).

In order to succeed you need to leave your house, meet people, and, most importantly, let them read your work. To paraphrase Cory Doctorow, obscurity is a greater threat than being ripped off. You can’t protect yourself against everything. Especially not time-travelling thieves in the pay of two of Britain’s best-loved contemporary sketch performers. More’s the pity…

Everyone wants to save the Film Council. Mike Leigh wants to save the Film Council; Hannibal from The A-Team wants to save the Film Council; 42,000 people on Facebook want to save the Film Council. Everyone wants to save the Film Council. Even Clint Eastwood, who eats financiers for breakfast and cleans his teeth with the sharpened bones of distributors, wants to save the Film Council.

Say what?

When a self-proclaimed libertarian like Clint Eastwood is arguing that you should keep a government body to subsidise a product that competes with the one he is producing, maybe it’s time to take a closer look at what’s actually going on. And that’s when you discover that not everyone wants to save the Film Council.

There is a small group of film-makers – mostly independent, mostly young – who don’t want to save the Film Council. Not at all. In fact, you get the feeling they’d quite happily burn the Film Council to the ground, and dance in the ashes.

They’re making quite a compelling case that the UK Film Council was simply a way of subsidising the production and distribution of Hollywood films in Britain. Which is exactly the same point Clint Eastwood made.

Chris Atkins, director of Taking Liberties, is one of the more visible members of this relatively-small ‘movement‘ (the ‘Get Rid of the Film Council’ group on Facebook has 123 members), but other prominent supporters of the UKFC’s closure are Alex Cox and Jonathan Gems (screenwriter of Mars Attacks and 1984).

These filmmakers point to the £200,000 given to Warner Bros to help with print and poster campaigns for their movies, as well as the £140,000 given to Disney in 2006. They point to the £144,000 given to distribute U2-3D and the £154,000 to She’s All Right, and wonder why the taxpayer is subsidising what are essentially extended marketing campaigns for millionaire rock stars.

They point to the Digital Screens Network, which, when it was announced in 2004, was meant to spend £14 million in putting digital projectors in 200 cinemas in Britain, so that smaller films could be distributed cheaply on hard drives, rather than having to get celluloid prints produced. However, rather than ensuring an open system, the UKFC caved to the ‘anti-piracy’ lobby, who insisted that these hard drives be encoded in a unique way. A unique way that is only done by one company in Britain, and which costs £5,000.

The cinemas also took this opportunity to put the digital projectors on their main screens, rather than their smaller screens. So, now the digital screens are used to cheaply distribute CGI animations on big screens, and are utterly inaccessible to independent film-makers, who still have to shell out for prints to be distributed to cinemas.

For EXAM, Stuart Hazeldine was offered 25 screens if he could afford prints for all of them (he tells the story in the comments section of this post). He couldn’t and the UKFC didn’t help. The film ended up opening on 8 screens. As he says: “I got a BAFTA nom for a film nobody saw.”

In some ways this seems to stem from an objection to one of the UKFC’s roles, what it liked to call ‘inward investment’. This was ensuring that Hollywood production money was spent in Britain’s studios, edit suites, and quaint villages. If you see this as the UKFC’s primary function, then it has arguably been a huge success (although the current financial troubles of Pinewood-Shepperton, and it’s failure to get planning permission for its large expansion suggest that the UKFC could have done more here, too).

Some, however, see using Britain as a ‘production house’ for Hollywood films, where all of the returns go back to studios in the US (like the Harry Potter or James Bond franchises) actually stifles any chance of having a British film industry. Jonathan Gems is quite persuasive in arguing that what the UKFC understood as British films weren’t, in a lot of cases, British in any meaningful sense (although his unfortunate choice of last line moves firmly into Little Englander, Blimp-esque territory).

Myself, I instinctively felt the old, hot ball of rage swell within me when the closure of the Film Council was announced. Like any right-thinking, left-leaning arts practitioner, it was quite heartening to feel the Dragon of Horror At Things The Tories Do stir within the cave where he’s slept since 1997. His replacement, the Impotent, Hoarse Donkey of New Labour Betrayal was never quite the same…

However, I’ve long argued that we should stop subsidising production, and, instead, spend that money subsidising distribution. I believe that the problem with attracting private investors is mainly because it’s so difficult to get a film into cinemas. If it were cheap and easy for a film to be shown on digital screens, and distributed on hard drives, and there were a financial incentive for a cinema to show local films, then it would be much easier to raise the funds for productions. The way to kickstart the industry is to give private investors a (high-risk) way of making a serious return on their investment, rather than ensuring that they will have to sell their film to a US- or French-owned studio in order to get it into cinemas.

So I am sympathetic to those who see the demise of the UKFC as an opportunity for a real and basic change in the way the British ‘film industry’ works. However, I don’t share their optimism.

The government is not attempting a major rethink of its strategy with regard to the way in which films are produced and distributed in this country. It became quite clear in the day following the announcement that they hadn’t even thought very hard about what was to replace the Film Council. It probably made Jeremy Hunt look quite good in Cabinet the next morning. Maybe he got to carry David Cameron’s books for him. It was a piece of macho posturing from a deeply unimpressive man; as if someone had cast Charles Hawtrey in The Expendables (although that’s about the only thing that could induce me to go and see it).

So, whilst I have sympathy with those who say that the Film Council was exclusive and a force that stifled the industry; whilst I agree that the slate of films produced since 1999 is, apart from those of Andrea Arnold, staggeringly mediocre (compared to the exuberance of the 1990s); whilst I agree that the enormous sums spent on salaries and offices don’t seem like the best use of limited resources, and that way in which the Digital Screen Network was implemented was a scandal, I’m not whooping with delight to see the back of the Film Council. It was an ideological move, the implications of which have not been thought through, and that could potentially be devastating for inward investment if that work is not maintained.

The UKFC was a flawed, in many ways unhelpful, organisation that it should not be difficult to replace with something better. Unfortunately, it looks like not much attention has been paid to replacing it at all.

And, besides, do you want to argue with Clint Eastwood?

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